The International Writers Magazine: Reality Check
South Carolina Mudsling
Republican Fringe Fights Back Against Citizen Romney
Fifteen days after the Iowa Caucuses, Mitt Romney, its presumed victor, received pre-dawn news that he actually placed runner-up. Antiquated third-world vote-tallying techniques perfected in the mid-nineteenth century by Boss Tweed led officials in Des Moines to report Rick Santorum had actually won.
Realizing that along with losing a few delegates, the frontrunner will no longer be able to claim "only non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate to sweep the first two contests of the primary season" status and thus draping himself in the cloak of inevitability was not Citizen Romney's worst turn of the day.
Romney, enduring his most trying week as a national candidate over calls, much of it from his opponents, for the release of his tax records stemming from allegations of an off-shore tax dodge, received darker vibrations only hours later. Before the morning was out, former Texas Governor and the field's comedy relief, Rick Perry dropped out of the race and quickly endorsed Romney's only real competition in the South Carolina Primary, Newt Gingrich.
Many were initially shocked that the self-destructive Perry, having been buried in Iowa, decided to limp from is "reassessment" conclave in Texas to contest South Carolina despite anemic poll numbers and strange debate performances in which his brain failed him and when it functioned was concocting a new invasion of Iraq. But rumors abounded for the past week that Perry promised a Secret Conservative Coalition, then meeting in his home state to coalesce behind one sustainable conservative alternative to Romney, that if he polled below ten percent on the eve of the South Carolina Primary he would toss his support, however pathetic, to the candidate closest to winning the state.
And so Perry's rapidly paced quit/endorse routine was less a surprise to Romney than the Santorum campaign, which was promised the full support of the same Secret Conservative Coalition immediately after its emergency summit wrapped the previous weekend. Scrambling to beg the Perry staff on holding off the Gingrich endorsement until after the South Carolina vote, scheduled for 1/21, Santorum's staff soon realized it was a lost cause. Perry, avoiding any mention of the Texas deal to back the most likely candidate and best derail Romney in South Carolina, instead cited his long-standing friendship with Gingrich, which led to the former speaker penning the foreword to his 2010 book, Fed up!, as the source of his reasoning.
In a strange twist of events, Gingrich received word from Texas to roll up behind Santorum two days before the Perry endorsement. The best reporting on this, much of it barely existent, describes a defiant candidate spending nearly an hour deconstructing the former Pennsylvania senator as a one-trick pony, who, outside of moldy social issues still has the stench of ignominious senatorial defeat upon him. Gingrich allegedly finished the one-sided conversation by promising the type of scorched earth South Carolina technique that the George W. Bush campaign unleashed on John McCain in 2000 that all-but sealed up the nomination.
Amazingly, this put Newt Gingrich, left for dead three times on the 2012 campaign, as the main challenger to a breezy Mitt Romney nomination.
Santorum's sudden Iowa victory and the Gingrich resurrection notwithstanding, Romney's clumsy dance around releasing his tax records and a series of verbal flubs slowly but surely had begun to paint the former Massachusetts governor as an unholy amalgam of Gordon Gekko and Daddy Warbucks. The detached business mogul, Citizen Romney, a big hit in New Hampshire, is a losing play in the south. By the time Perry tossed his five percent support to Gingrich, Romney's fifteen-point lead had shrunk to less than ten in most polls.
For his part, Gingrich's red-meat performance in a FOXNEWS debate before a rabid southern conservative crowd a few days prior, which garnered him several standing ovations, helped the former speaker gain serious traction. While Santorum appeared oddly civil and Romney predictably wooden, Gingrich fired one spiteful sound bite after the next, hammering the press, the president, and the entirety of the American system of governance since 1835. By the time Gingrich concluded his multi-pronged stomp, the edgework mystic, Ron Paul appeared a far more viable centrist choice.
This is the hardcore South Carolina pushback that was promised by Republican insiders and the very reason for RNC chairman Reince Priebus' drinking binge that was dutifully reported in this space three weeks ago. It is, as history dictates for the GOP, the challengers' firewall and the last-chance corral for someone to put the brakes on the Citizen Romney machine -- well funded, methodically organized, and far-reaching -- that is still boasting double-digit leads in Florida and beyond.
But the rosy comeback glow was quickly dimmed the very same night Gingrich was apprised of his recent surge and the Perry nod, as ABC News aired an interview with his second wife, who candidly talked of his six-year affair with a House staffer and current wife while he spent months publically decrying the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. The buzzword to come out of the interview was "open marriage" that, while not as horrifying as "gay marriage" to the Right, appears to shamelessly defecate on even the vaguest concept of "family values".
Gingrich then took to his defense by pitching one of his celebrated fits for the first four minutes of a CNN debate by blaming the "left-wing elite press" for screwing a woman who wasn't his wife for the better part of a decade. You could almost hear the feint echoes of "vast left-wing conspiracy" in this tired nineties-era act. But it was ultimately a key debate for Santorum, as he took the fight in a surprisingly cogent fashion to all comers and lifted his brand beyond goofy religious axioms to the only real conservative candidate left standing.
In the same debate, Romney, who has made an art form of playing both sides of an argument, broke the record for contradicting one's self. Rightly hammering Barack Obama for what he deemed "crony capitalism" -- the president's kowtowing to labor interests and failed environmental concerns -- within 25 seconds (20 of which were consumed by the moderator) he stated, "I know we're going to get attacked on capitalism and people say we have to practice it 'this way or that way', but my view is that I will defend any type of capitalism."
Make no mistake, Santorum, a solid debater, Gingrich, an excellent sound bite, and Paul, an enviable rebel, are all sucking Romney's fumes. But their yo-yo campaigns clearly illustrate that he is a dangerously flawed candidate. Yet he remains the man the Party wants to court a vital and growing Independent vote that will ultimately decide the presidency in November. Something the Republican establishment fear Gingrich or Santorum will fail miserably to achieve.
© James Campion 1.20.12
For all intents and purposes, the Republican Primary season is over. The unprecedented victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney have taken the starch out of things.